Time for a “death pool” on the DPJ?

If you come here for the foreign policy content I have a post on the ‘Three Principles of Arms Exports’ over at Japan Security Watch. They have, for those that are interested, changed. Here is a summary of the statement from the Chief Cabinet Secretary. I will be writing a little more on the changes later in the week.

Anyway domestically, it will by now be obvious that there is a little, perhaps unexpected, tension in and around Nagata-cho heading into the new year. I share with Michael Cucek a large degree of exasperation around what it is exactly the Noda Cabinet is trying to achieve. Noda has completely lost control over the narrative about what his prime ministership stands for. Cucek also provides some pretty good reasons here as to why the overall political situation has very quickly come to a head at a time of year when everybody should be taking a step back and reflecting on the events of the year. Jun Okumura as always provides some solid and sensible reasons for commentators to not get ahead of themselves in speculating on whether Japanese politics is about to undergo the now seemingly mythical political realignment (政界再編) that many have been predicting for a while. Like ‘regime change’ (政権交代) this almost seems to have become a meaningless phase despite the perhaps misplaced hope placed in it.

Nevertheless I will ignore Jun’s caution somewhat as I feel there is something a little different this time around. The party is much closer to splitting now than any of the other times when, according to the Japanese media and many foreign commentators, Ozawa apparently was threatening to tear the party apart, but suspiciously never really got close.

The reason why I say unexpected is that given how clumsily recent events have been handled it could be argued that this latest round of tension has surprised a number of stakeholders, including the Noda and his cabinet. Tension was expected over the TPP given what was (as I have argued, falsely) believed to be at stake. However it seemed that the one thing the Noda Cabinet was supposed to do was to promote party unity by giving a little bit to everyone, something the Hatoyama and Kan Cabinets did not attempt. A little bit to the Ozawa camp, to the differing camps within the “mainstream” group of Sengoku, Noda and Maehara, and then to some of the other factions-that-aren’t-really factions. Noda’s seeming comprehensive election victory seemed to suggest to Japanese commentators and media analysts at least that the issue of whether the consumption tax should be raised had been settled within the DPJ. Ozawa would hopefully be quiet.

And for the most part Ozawa has. He has even gone as far as to publicly state that now is not the time for DPJ newbies to jump ship. So that can’t be it. With Ozawa not being the current cause of tension, and no elections for the foreseeable future, the mainstream media seems to have no possible way to understand what is happening. So it is going (jp) with the Ozawa factor anyway in grappling for explanations. And this is precisely why the Japanese media, with its focus on personal politics and policy symbolism over the politics of policy making (reinforced to be sure by the actions and statements of the senior leaderships of all parties, big and small), struggles at times like this. Ultimately if this was all about Ozawa a much bigger split would have happened a longer time ago – recent differences appear to be very much over policy than personality.

So over and above the obvious and persistent reasons for tension in Japanese politics, I feel there there is an under-discussed aspect of the DPJ that need to be understood to truly make sense of the current situation.

That the DPJ is a party with no broadly uniting policy or ideology is already well-understood, and now that its reason for existence has vanished (removing the LDP), it is no surprise that it is violently thrashing around for coherence. From this point of view the fact that the party is split between old school socialists, social progressives, foreign policy hardliners, and experts in the cynical politics of patronage led by the likes of Ozawa, suggests that we can understand policy outcomes by reference to the machinations of various intra-party factions. And I in point this out I am not suggesting I don’t do it, to be sure.

The power of the factions however in the DPJ is only relevant when it comes to intra-party elections however. A problem this surely is, to be sure, due to the fact that the political situation has necessitated the need for so many of these tortuous exercises, but not necessarily the overall explanation for all outcomes related to the DPJ’s time in government.

The DPJ’s factions clearly play a role in these elections and in doling out the baubles of office by structuring election and candidate choices, and providing a ready made rhetorical frame for the public to understand the outcomes – and thus ultimately forces those outside of the various factions to go along with the prevailing politics of compromise in the short-term.

However, it does not necessarily apply to policy making, which is perhaps the major difference of the factions between the DPJ and the LDP, where in the LDP era policy conflict would be managed in order to mutually prolong the power of all of the respective power nexus. The TPP debate I feel showed this quite well – there was little factional coherence in terms of who came out for and against the TPP, or was lukewarm one way or another. Rather stakeholder interests, and election prospects and local considerations usually directed individual decisions. Furthermore, it is often forgotten however that there are well over 400 DPJ Diet members, and no where near enough factions to ‘contain’ all of them. As it was it took the LDP years, some would say decades to perfect its system of factional patronage and compromise.

In short, there is a large number of, often younger, DPJ Diet members who care not for factions, tolerate them to ensure they don’t unnecessarily make enemies, and whose personal political ambitions was initially forged upon the desire to actually be involved in reform of some kind, even if the exact contours of that reform were not ideologically and rigidly predetermined. They did not leave successful non-political careers where their talents were being put to productive use to waste time away in a do nothing parliament, and their support for Noda at the last party election was not simply a vote of confidence for party unity and/or simply for the consumption tax increase.

As has very much come to the fore in this latest round of tension, is that a consumption tax increase without either at least a symbolic cut in the number of Diet members (and therefore one assumes without reform of the electoral system of both the upper and lower houses), and preferably some kind of a start in administrative reform is a political disaster. Raising taxes without dealing with the oversized budget through actually cutting some of the shiwake programs, and/or dealing with other pressing drains on the governments fiscal health, like amakudari, would be simply unacceptable for these members if they had to go into a general election sometime soon under the DPJ banner. In this sense their thoughts would seem to be precisely in line with the publics’ general line of thought. Many politicians throughout the political spectrum still struggle to realize that the public’s lukewarm support in general for the consumption tax increase is intimately connected to some genuine political sacrifice being offered up, and then appear genuinely surprised when the public then comes out strongly against specific tax rise policies.

And thus many of the aforementioned DPJ members understood that Noda would push for the raising of the consumption tax and voted for him as the superior option over Kaieda Banri – if he would also take seriously the needed administrative reform, that incidentally Maehara Seiji discussed and recommended the party focus on in during the Noda era in his effective DPJ leadership  concession speech (well it was his appeal for votes but it more or less sounded like a concession speech).

Many of these aforementioned members have actually been deliberately been biding their time, knowing the current political situation is hopeless and not going to enhance their political ambitions or their policy agendas. Bold statements of symbolic value or on specific policies have not been in their self-interest, and ultimately in the interest of their policy aspirations. Many seemed resigned to venting their frustrations in private until the appropriate time.

However it seems that the restarting of the Yamba dam project, that was part a large symbolic part of the manifesto and seemingly a simple decision to make, and the pressure put on them to commit to a tax increase by the party leadership without making the necessary sacrifices, has really pushed the conflict to the core of the party.

There was already internal angst within the DPJ over the shiwake administrative review process. It yielded little by way of actual cuts to actual programs and more frustratingly, those programs that had been cut in this process arose in different ministries under different names. This was not lost within the party. A large number of DPJ members have become increasingly vocal at DPJ policy committees and combative towards what they see to be unresponsive bureaucratic advisers and party leadership, who appear to be ignoring their policy preferences and coming back to the committees with the same proposals with only cosmetic changes. It seems a lot of the rank and file of the DPJ which exist between the factional power nodes, have very little patience left.  It now appears obvious to them that Noda is not going to deliver.1

These members have been called “manifesto fundamentalists” by some, for example Watanabe Yoshimi, if they are not calling them Ozawa’s children. This view perpetuates the idea that Noda’s, or any PM’s deviation from the manifesto is the cause of intra-party tension. But this is not entirely accurate.  These members are realistic enough to understand that in a situation of political complexity stubborn devotion to a less than strategically coherent manifesto from a policy point of view was never going to be a winning strategy – and that the public would probably forgive some deviations if some other aspects of the manifesto, particularly the administrative ones, were executed.  But the Yamba Dam decision and the sacrifice-less tax increase proposal seems to have snuffed out any chance that these members, if they were to campaign as rank and file members of the DPJ at any future election,  would be able to appeal to the public’s sense of reasonableness. Now some will be asking, “what do we have left?”

So how is this different from previous intra-party eruptions? Aside from all fruitful avenues for burnishing one’s political and policy credentials being exhausted, I believe this time it is  unlike for example earlier this year when a group of strongly Ozawa affiliated DPJ members threatened to leave the party (sort of) around the time of the no-confidence vote against Kan. This eruption was easily understood – as the most loyal Ozawa-ites they were leverage for Ozawa in his battle with Kan at the time, and since all of them were elected on the PR system, and not particularly electorally attractive, (despite being described as “young politicians” when they were anything but) they had very little left to lose given that as Ozawa acolytes and PR Diet members they were doomed the moment Kan lost the Upper House election in 2010.

This time however the ones that are the cause of trouble for the Noda Cabinet were not solely elected through proportional representation. Saito Yasunori and Uchiyama Akira are leading this charge and are both representatives of their own constituencies. As I described of the pseudo-revolt earlier this year:

While they have at times, amusingly, been described as “young” by the Japanese press (若手 – only 3 of the 16 are under 45 ) they all are likely to suffer the most from an upcoming election under the DPJ banner, having not had even a local constituency to represent while trying to raise their personal profile in the last 2 years. A lot of the first-time candidates who were elected to local constituencies in 2009, under Ozawa’s direction took straight to using their new found status to raise their profile and have worked assiduously at a local level to consolidate their position, hardly touching 0n policy at all. These members in particular might find it most advantageous to distance themselves from the party at a later date – something they could well credibly do considering their lack of DPJ “institutionalization.”

For me, the movements of the likes of Ishizeki Takashi will be very instructive. Ishizeki recently came out in effective support of his Gunma counterpart (Nakajima Masaki), who perhaps initiated the recent round of defections (now reaching 9 members as I type – jp). Ishizeki said that he felt very much the same way about the party’s decision and wanting to break away. Ishizeki is young at 39 but has considerable political experience. A former government bureaucrat who graduated from Waseda and has spent time at the University of London,  he is very ambitious while at the same time has a strong belief in the need for reform in Japan in various forms. He is a ‘graduate’ of ‘Ozawa Juku’ and a part of the ‘Ozawa Group’ but has his own interests to look after as he was not elected on the PR block and represents Gunma constituency no.2. I would suggest that he, among many others dispersed throughout the party’s weak factional system,  is an appropriate weather vane of the mood of those I have described above within the DPJ. That he has echoed his displeasure but stayed within the party is suggestive. Noda et al will have to tread very carefully, which is exactly what he has done by putting off (ja) a decision on a specific percentage for the consumption tax increase, and a specific timetable for its implementation. But it may be close to all over for the party notwithstanding a miracle. It seems the issue is now really about the timing.

The rise of Osaka Mayor/self-appointed destroyer of vested interests in government (jp) Hashimoto Toru comes at a very interesting time for the DPJ members I have discussed in this post. Despite Kamei, Ozawa and other political opportunists’ nakedly transparent attempt to court Hashimoto, Hashimoto has kept his distance.2 And while I have all but given up on Watanabe Yoshimi and co. to contribute anything of value to the political process other than soundbites, there may be some chance for future cooperation. After all, there is almost no issue left for the government to address, even badly. That is, except for the growing unconstitutional affront to democracy that is the inter-regional vote disparity (一票の格差) that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reported (ja) had grown in overall numerical terms in both houses of parliament, and crucially included a big jump in the number of electoral districts in the House of Representatives that passed the constitutionally acceptable 2 to 1 ratio. Ultimately I believe it is unlikely that too many DPJ malcontents will want to leave the party before this little issue is resolved – as long as it is unresolved they likely won’t have to contest an election and not knowing the outcome of this reform won’t help the formulation of future electoral strategy – nor would diminishing one’s influence over the singular issue that is left that would affect one’s chances of re-election.

1 Their existence also explains why Kamei Shizuka’s sought after reform to Post Office Privatization has not proceeded, even though all of the main factions aside from perhaps Maehara’s would gladly play political football with this issue.

2 Interestingly last Sunday Hashimoto and Maehara were on television together and were at great pains to not agree too warmly with each other – Hashimoto not wanting to be too close to anyone in the current government, and Maehara not wanting to be too closely associated with the maverick least he have his position of responsibility as DPJ policy chief undermined, which had already been called into question by his public explosion on the Yamba Dam decision.

Advertisements